Home Again: Nicki Parrott Swings the Southern Hemisphere

Like her music, Nicki Parrott has traveled far from her birthplace in Newcastle, Australia, and established an international reputation as both a renowned bassist and vocalist. Such a path was far from the norm in the area best known for its heavy industries, but she benefited from having parents who loved music and encouraged her talents.

Parrott tried several instruments before finding her true fit. By her mid-teens she had switched from studying classical piano to jazz bass. Between playing in school bands, getting help from a neighbor, listening to a lot of jazz and trying to figure it out, she made enough progress to determine her future career. “I was pretty awful at 18, but I got gigs. I learned on the job. I wasn’t scared of it; I just wasn’t good for a while.”

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After high school, she studied in Sydney’s New South Wales Conservatorium of Music. She even snagged lessons from touring American artists such as Ray Brown and John Clayton. She had, however, read Rufus Reid’s classic bass book Evolving Upward and was determined to try to study with him. She sent him a tape of her playing and requested private lessons. Awarded one of two Arts Council Grants given that year, she made that desire a reality.

It was a ten-month grant, but when it was up, “I thought I hadn’t even skimmed the surface, so I was determined to stay.” Where to stay was simple: “I loved the energy of New York, and musically it was a bit more interesting than a lot of other cities I’ve been to.” She found plenty of gigs with various groups and on Broadway. The latter “…is a great avenue for musicians to get their reading chops together and find some regular union work with pensions and health care. Need I say more?”

Another important opportunity came when Parrott found herself on Sherrie Maricle, the DIVA big band leader’s, radar. Always watching for top new players, both to keep her band in top form and to help nurture that talent, Maricle soon made Perrott DIVA’s full-time bassist.

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“I did the gig full time for something like three years. I’m fortunate to have had that experience. I have an immense respect for Sherrie and everybody in DIVA, because I got some good opportunities through DIVA. They are a great band, and they are fun.”

Nicki Parrott
Nicki Parrott

One night, she and two mates went to catch Les Paul’s Monday night gig, and even sat in for a few tunes. Then the living legend said, “‘OK, you guys can finish up now, but leave the girl.’ I’m like, ‘Oh God; I’m going to cop it now.’ So, he made a couple of wisecracks and I came back with something, I forget what. At the end of the night the bass player said, ‘Les really likes you… Listen I have to go away, can you sub for me?’”

At the end of that three-week temp-gig, Paul asked her to stay, and dropped his previous bassist.

“It’s a weird feeling when you take a gig from someone, but bandleaders know what they want. Anybody can get fired at any time. That’s the other part of the music business. You’ve got to be prepared to be fired or get a lucky break. It runs the gamut.” Being in that icon’s band for the last 11 years of his life was a monumental opportunity.

Parrott found Paul fascinating. “He loved to play, but he really loved making people happy.” And he seemed to know so many famous actors, even astronauts, as well as famous musicians of every genre as well as almost everybody in the music business. He was also a transformative influence. Until then, she had been strictly a bassist, then Paul asked, “‘Is that all you do — play the bass?’ I said, ‘I guess I could sing. I like singing.’ I think the first song I sang was ‘Deed I Do,’ and he liked it. So, he kept it in the act, and I started singing from then on.”


Always a reliable and attractive performer, she quickly established her own schedule for Paul’s days off. (When Frank Vignola told me, “She’s a great bassist. Yeah, she is beautiful too, but she is really a great bassist.” I thought only a musician would put those attributes in that order.) As the years passed, and her career blossomed, she seemed to be permanently rooted in the States. She married Brian Wittman, her photographer and sometimes lyricist, and had a lovely home in rural Connecticut. But “The truth is, I’ve always missed the Australian lifestyle, their humor and their laid-back nature, their food, and things like that. I wanted to be there more for my parents than I’ve been able to while in the States. It’s too hard to go back and forth.”

Also, both she and her husband Brian were ready for a big change from nearly thirty years of the New York scene. When Covid struck they suddenly had no work and ample time to find their ideal location. “We looked for a house and got it. I’ve always loved this area of New South Wales for its natural beauty: the sunsets, the ocean, scenic mountains and farmland.” Brisbane is only an hour and a half away when an urban delight is desired. So, papers were signed, tickets were purchased, many goodbyes were said, and “We left the first of May 2021.”

Professionally, she wasn’t disappointed, “I’ve found the nice camaraderie and respect from Australian musicians to be really lovely.” Her husband elaborated, “I’ll give you another side of it; a lot of musicians there knew that Nikki was coming, and they were anxious for hooking up gigs and stuff. And their level of playing satisfies her. They know that she’s the home girl coming back with this international experience. You can see in their faces they really are so excited to play with her. She doesn’t have the ego to say it, but that’s the truth.”


For over a century, jazz musicians from across the globe have dreamed of joining America’s vibrant New York jazz community. Indeed, Parrott had been one of them. That is no longer a requirement! The pandemic and social media have caused profound changes. As she explained, “Everybody in Australia knows about Emmet Cohen, and all the people that are coming up now, because we’re on Facebook. And the news travels fast on social media.

“Through the pandemic, Australians were telling me, ‘I was able to participate with Matt Wilson and with so and so in the global music jazz scene via Zoom.’ I did the same. If I wasn’t participating, I watched Berkeley Bass or all these different things that were available and everyone around the world was watching them. People still watch Emmet’s live streams all around the world, and I have found very good musicians all over Australia.”

She mentioned another change. “I’m getting more involved with jazz education. I couldn’t say for the first time as I’ve done the Litchfield and Hilton Head jazz camp, and I loved doing those. But now I’m actually teaching weekly at a school called Lindisfarne Anglican school in Tweed Heads, the most northern town of New South Wales.


“I’ve got some students that are finishing high school this year and going on. There’s a lot of incredibly talented singers, and musicians, and I feel they’re happy. Their parents are also happy that I’m there. I get nice feedback. And I’m enjoying teaching, I have something to say from almost 30 years in the States and hanging around all these musicians. I feel like ‘Oh, seriously, you need to do this. You might not find that in a book, but I learned it from so and so, and you need to do that.’ They appreciate that.”

As for regular gigs, “I’ve started a group with this saxophone player Martha Baartz. It’s with just the cream of the crop of the Northern Rivers musicians, and it’s a collaborative thing. We’re figuring out the repertoire as we go and what works. It’s really great. Good jazz is always going to be with us. It stays alive. People feel it, that’s why younger people get into this music because when it’s good it’s so refreshing and loose, you can be free onstage and tell a joke, and have fun. It can be unscripted and just a good time involving the audience.”


Naturally, international touring will still be on her calendar, but there is a problem. The costs of travel to Japan and Europe are manageable, but her former home base is a different story. “The airfares just make it so much more difficult to route a tour in the States, so I haven’t quite got my head around how to do it. But, if there’s a way to figure it out, so that we don’t go broke doing it, then it’d be nice to come back and do gigs.”

The Jazz Cruise out of Florida, however, remains an exception. Since she left the States, that weeklong wintertime event has always lured her back because “It is filled with people there who want to hear good music done so well by players with the highest level of musicianship. It’s a thrill, and a great gig that I love. It’s a plug for them, but they deserve it.” Hopefully, other venues here will also prove alluring.

Schaen Fox is a longtime jazz fan. Now retired, he devotes much of his time to the music. Write him at [email protected].

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